Cecchetti and the Method of Classical ballet training that bears his name
Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928) was considered the greatest ballet teacher of his time. His Method, as it came to be known, is called The Days of the Week, and centres around a structured daily training that teaches through sound physical and theoretical principles. The Cecchetti Method encompasses a vast range of steps and step-combinations, movement qualities and dynamics, gesture and virtuosity.
His Method appears to have been worked out with much logical forethought and with careful study it reveals the science behind the art of classical ballet.
A student trained in the Cecchetti Method dances with co-ordination and control, purity of line and can move with astonishing speed or measured lyricism. They are able to change planes and directions without difficulty and always with intense musicality and a sense of the innate joy of dancing.
The Childhood of Enrico Cecchetti
Enrico Cecchetti was born on 21st June 1850 in the dressing room of the Apollo theatre, Tordinona, Rome into a family of dancers. His mother Serafina Casagli was a secondary mime at the theatre, his father Cesare a dancer too and noted producer of ballets. Both parents had trained with Carlo Blasis, the celebrated codifier of classical dance technique, in Milan. Enrico grew up in the theatres of Italy performing coreodramma, the Italian art of mime with dance movements learned in the theatre, with his parents, his older sister Pia and younger brother Giuseppe. The family toured in America when Cecchetti was just seven years old.
Inspired by a parade in which King Victor Emmanuel, Garibaldi and Napoleon III were riding through Turin, the 10 year old Cecchetti wanted to become a soldier, or a dancer. He did not want to go to school which was the idea of his parents who hoped he would become learned and respectable. Formal schooling however, was a disaster.
Cecchetti finally persuaded his parents to let him take ballet classes and eventually he went to learn with Giovanni Lepri in Florence. Lepri was a student of Carlo Blasis. So, in addition to his Italian technique, Cecchetti became an accomplished ballet technician, a virtuoso in the French classical style. By the age of 16, Cecchetti was working professionally as a ballet dancer and toured with his sister Pia, who had completed her training also with Lepri, and his mother.
By the age of 17, Cecchetti had already acquired the name of Maestro, as he was often called upon to assist his fellow dancers with their technique.
Cecchetti’s early career met with great success not only in Rome, Turin, Pisa and other Italian regional theatres but he was a great sensation also with the notoriously critical audiences of the San Carlo in Naples and after his eventual debut at 20, at La Scala, Milan.
Cecchetti danced in many productions including fashionable ballets that strove to precipitate Italian desire for independence and unification. In 1866 when feelings of the Risorgimento were at their height in Pisa, he performed a Pas seul to the hymn of Garibaldi which encored 5 times! Cecchetti however, was not politically motivated, but instead, passionate about his work as an artist, exuberant of nature, completely at home in the theatre and quietly pious. He was proud to be Italian, sought the company of his countrymen and his home cuisine whilst touring abroad and was devoted to his wife and extended family.
Cecchetti, his wife Giuseppina Maria and their Family
Cecchetti married the ballerina Giuseppina de Maria, in Berlin in 1878. She had trained also with Lepri in Florence. They had 5 sons together, 3 became dancers – including Grazioso who later became a teacher – although 2 died after having served in the Great War. The eldest son Cesare eventually became a successful lawyer, to the great pride of the family.
The Imperial Theatre beckons
Together the Cecchettis toured with success across Europe including to St. Petersburg and Moscow. Following a great artistic success in St. Petersburg in 1887, Cecchetti was invited to join the Imperial Ballet under Marius Petipa the long-serving, French ballet master. Cecchetti was to work at the Imperial Theatre until 1902 alongside Petipa and the other great teacher of the day, Pehr Christian Johansson. They were nicknamed ‘The Holy Trinity’ of the Imperial Theatre.
Cecchetti at the Imperial Theatre, St. Petersburg
As a guest artist Cecchetti showed audiences that men could rival women onstage in brilliant technique and allied to this was his training as a great mime, so he was soon asked to teach this at the Imperial School. However it took 5 years before he received an official contract and it was not until 1898 that he was promoted to teaching technique in the parallel Class of Perfection to that of Johansson. By this time, aged forty he was nearly at the end of his dancing career. Even so, in 1890 he created the dual roles of Carabosse and Bluebird in the Sleeping Beauty for which he will most be remembered because Carabosse was a mime role and Bluebird a classical, virtuosic dance role.
Cecchetti develops his ‘Days of the Week’
By this time he had begun to codify what was to become his ‘Method of Classical Theatrical Dancing’. (The original document from 1894 is in the New York Public Library forms part of the collection of Cia Fornaroli, one of his last students.) The Imperial Theatre was creating their own ‘home grown’ talent rather than relying upon guest artists from Europe. Cecchetti’s students included the first generation of internationally recognised dancers, Pavlova and Nijinsky in particular and also Karsarvina, Kschessinska, Egorova, Trefilova, Preobrajenska amongst others. Many of Cecchetti’s students went on to become internationally renowned teachers in the early decades of the 20th century.
Cecchetti goes to Warsaw
For reasons which are still unclear, Cecchetti left the Imperial Theatre in 1902 to take up the position of Director of the Imperial Ballet School in Warsaw. Before he left, the dancers gave a farewell gala to celebrate their Maestro and performed ‘Paquita’, each ballerina contributed her own favourite variation. By this time his pupils and friends included members of the nobility and intelligentsia as well as dancers in the school and company. Cecchetti invited dancers to Warsaw to help improve the level of the Ballet there but in 1905 increasing civil unrest and the discomfort of his family, persuaded him to return to Italy.
Cecchetti returns to St. Petersburg, the meeting with Pavlova
He did not stay long in Italy. By this time, the theatres preferred operas to ballets, so Cecchetti went back to St. Petersburg. He opened his own school and his previous pupils returned. Then Anna Pavlova, who had danced her debut in Giselle under Cecchetti’s direction in Warsaw, sought his opinion of her as a ballerina after a performance in Moscow. Cecchetti’s typically frank, unflattering reply relating to her habit of dancing certain steps with her hands on her hips, which he thought to be an affectation, caused her to demand that he teach her exclusively for the next three years. Cecchetti handed over his school to his wife and became Pavlova’s private coach.
Cecchetti maintained that he did not create what he called ‘Pavlova’s genius’ instead it was his Method of teaching classical ballet technique that allowed her genius to unfold. Their close professional relationship lasted until Maestro’s death in 1928.
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
At this time, one of the most important developments in classical ballet was just about to burst onto the Western European stage. Sergei Diaghilev, Impressario, art critic and acquaintance of Cecchetti’s since 1898, created the Ballets Russes and brought brought a season of sensational new ballets to Paris and London in 1909. The company stunned audiences with their daring use of new choreography, exotic costumes, stage designs and modern music especially composed for the ballet. Designers included Bakst and Goncharova, and one of the composers was Stravinsky. Later collaborations would bring in Picasso, de Chirico, Cocteau, Satie, Ravel, and fledgling choreographer George Balanchine. Cecchetti was begged by the dancers to tour with them and he joined the company as Ballet Master and Mime.
That the ballets had a profound effect on design and fashion in the first decade of the 20th century is well documented. As a result of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, ballet as an art form would never be the same again. Dancers from the Ballets Russes, many trained by Cecchetti, would have careers as teachers and company directors in newly formed ballet troupes across the world.
Touring and Teaching
Diaghilev’s troupe of Imperial ballet stars eventually left their home in St. Petersburg to travel around the world. Cecchetti went with them. In 1911, his wife gave up the school in St. Petersburg and joined the company, also as a mime. Cecchetti continued his stage career in ballets by Fokine and Massine whilst giving company class. Until the day he died, Cecchetti was determined to maintain the purity and elegance of his classical training in the face of modernism, which swept the world and the arts in the 1920’s, through his Method he continued to call The Days of the Week.
Cecchetti in England
After a nearly catastrophic tour to Spain at the end of the Great War, the Ballets Russes fled to London and Cecchetti settled in Soho, amongst other Italians, opening his own school within the year. It was said that you could not become a dancer unless you passed through his hands.
Cecchetti’s Method was adopted wholeheartedly by English dancers and eventually the critic and historian Cyril Beaumont decided it must be set down in writing for future generations. With the help of Idzikowsky, a Polish dancer trained by Cecchetti and eventually Maestro himself, the book was finished and published, and was a great pride to Cecchetti.
English trained pupils Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert were to go on to found the Vic-Wells and later Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert companies respectively. They helped launch the careers of choreographers Frederick Ashton and Anthony Tudor amongst countless dancers and the Method was taught at the Royal Ballet School until 1986.
Return to Italy, the final years
Cecchetti worked tirelessly and eventually succumbed to ill health. Perhaps it was also the unsympathetic climate of London that prompted a return to Italy in 1923, where he convalesced at Lago Maggiore. Maestro was soon teaching again and at the age of seventy five, accepted an offer to become Director of Ballet at La Scala, Milan under the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. For the summer assessments, Cecchetti invited former ballerinas such as Virginia Zucchi and his friend, the great ballerina Anna Pavlova, to attend.
Cecchetti demanded that students be accepted on merit, that they could be of any nationality and that their training would not be disturbed by participating in too many stage performances. This was revolutionary at the time and one of many passionate attempts by Cecchetti throughout his life to improve the lives and careers of dancers – and the public’s opinion of them.
Privately he continued to coach and also accepted occasional engagements from Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, now based in Monaco. One of his last students was Serge Lifar who went on to become director of the Paris Opera. Italian students Vincenzo Celli and Gisella Caccialanza became dancers and teachers in the USA.
(Photo above shows Cecchetti with his wife, Serge Lifar and Sergei Diaghilev in Venice, 1925)
Epitaph by Cyril Beaumont
In 1927 Cecchetti’s wife died and although it was a devastation, still Cecchetti continued teaching for another year. On 12th November 1928 he became ill in class and was taken home where he passed away the next day. Cyril Beaumont recorded in his Memoir of the Maestro:
“For the present there is none worthy to assume the mantle of Cecchetti. He was one of those great artists who appear not once in a generation but only at rare intervals in the world’s history of the theatre.”
Julie Cronshaw, London, May 2013, revised July 2020